PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Hurt Locker (A)
U.S.; Kathryn Bigelow, 2009, Summit Entertainment
"You sit there, waiting for the theater to explode!" That was the famous ad tagline, in the '50s, for The Wages of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot's great French thriller about a small group of trucks and desperate drivers carrying nitroglycerine to a burning oil field over South American mountain roads. And it also fits the tense, supremely jittery feeling you get from Kathryn Bigelow's great new war movie about an American army bomb disposal unit in Iraq.
The subject of The Hurt Locker, of course, is the Iraq War -- the searing landscape, the uneasy, sometimes hostile populace, the bombs in the streets and the overworked ordnance disposal squad who have to disarm bombs and suicide bombers alike. The movie shows us one such squad as the days tick down toward the end of their tour -- a team that includes Jeremy Renner as cocky and reckless (and somewhat war-loving) Staff Sgt. William James, along with Anthony Mackie as the more somber and careful Sgt. J.T. Sanborn, and Guy Pearce as James' dashing (and quickly exiting) predecessor Sgt. Matt Thompson, with pungent cameos by Ralph Fiennes and David Morse.
In this blisteringly dramatic movie, director Bigelow and writer/ex-embedded journalist Mark Boal show us a dark, hellish conflict fought far from home in primitive sandy environs with all the tools of the super-electronic/media age (from high-tech gunnery to robots), waged by soldiers whose tours are stretched beyond the limit and whose nerves are becoming frayed and volatile.
This thriller is as good as its long string of 2009 awards would suggest: a war movie with a real sense of deadly expertise, male bonding and conflicts, laced with constant undercurrents of danger. Like many of the classic post-World War II movies -- the darker ones like Attack!, Men in War, The Big Red One and Platoon, The Hurt Locker immerses us in the everyday details of battle, bloodshed and temporary calm.
24 City (A)
China; Jia Zhang-Ke, 2008, Cinema Guild
China's Jia Zhang-ke, one of the world's great filmmakers, takes us to an old munitions plant, Factory 420, that's been operating since the Korean War, but is now due to be razed to make way for a huge new apartment complex, to be called 24 City, which will displace 30,000 workers for 3 million plus square feet of ritzy living space.
Was it worth it? The movie gives us interviews with nine Factory 420 workers -- five real ones and four dramatized, fictional characters played by well-known movie actors. All of them usher us back to the past, when Factory 420 was first a buzzing Marxist weapons plant, and practically a private city unto itself, and later a steadily failing, dying industry.
The stories told us are bittersweet, deeply humane, a bit elliptical and freighted with sad irony. These people worked hard, lived together and took some small pride and happiness in their world, and now that world is about to vanish: gutted, stripped and collapsing into rubble. Part of it falls and dies right before our eyes.
The four actors impersonating 420 workers or family include Joan Chen (The Last Emperor), who plays a beautiful but unhappy woman named Gu Minhua -- once a young girl whom everybody at the factory called "Little Flower," after the Chinese movie actress who became a superstar in the 1978 hit Little Flower: young Joan Chen. Her love life wrecked by a jealous scandal-monger, who pretended she wrote him love letters, and perhaps by her own high expectations, she is now a lonely woman in her 50s. Another young woman, Sun Na (played by Jia regular Zhao Tao) is a daughter of workers who now earns her living buying fashionable clothes for wealthy wives, and cries when she thinks of her parents' labors. Among the real workers are a proud line worker and a foreman suffering from senility.
What are Jia's social/political sympathies here? They strike me as neither completely with nor against the worlds of the old weapon mill or the new condo "paradise," but instead with the people who lived or will live in both, and who had or will have their lives twisted and bent by the social forces around them, whether Mao or Mercedes Benz. Does it matter that part of the movie was financed by 24 City and its corporation? No more than it ultimately matters that Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story was backed by Standard Oil.
Jia has become the kind of critical darling that Krzysztof Kieslowski or Fassbinder or Godard or Antonioni or Bergman used to be, and he deserves it. He powerfully melds documentary and drama, truth and fiction, and nowhere more potently than here. He's an artist who masterfully gives us whole worlds and the people who live in them. (In Mandarin Chinese, with English subtitles.)
8 1/2 (A)
Italy; Federico Fellini, 1963, Criterion, Blu-ray, 2 discs
8 1/2, Federico Fellini's masterpiece about a movie that can't get made, and about Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), the writer-director who can't make it, marked a revolution in the way we thought and wrote about filmmaking.
Guido, a character unmistakably modeled on Fellini himself, is an internationally renowned film auteur, working in the Cinecitta studios and an elegant spa on his new project -- a Felliniesque film unmistakably modeled on 8 1/2. (That name comes from the number of movies, including episodes and fragments of anthology films, Fellini had made at that point in his career.) Guido has sets, actors, an army of technicians, studio time, some very nervous producers and right-hand men (Mario Pisu and Guido Alberti) and a troupe of reporters, paparazzi and one scornful critic-adviser Daumier (Jean Rougeul) nipping at his heels, but no completed script.
Instead, he has some fragmentary notes and a welter of satirical dreams and childhood memories that keep teasing and tormenting him as he skips from one meeting or screening to the next, trying to dodge questions and evade catastrophe.
Complicating matters further are the presence of both Guido's wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimee), his mistress, Carla (played by Sandra Milo, Fellini's own longtime lover), and a bevy of attractive women (including Italian horror movie queen Barbara Steele), who keep arousing his libido or filling him with Catholic guilt. Luisa, accompanied by her sarcastic feminist friend Rossella (Rossella Falk) is increasingly fed up. Carla, a childlike bosomy blond with a taste for bedroom games and a weak constitution, is shunted aside. And the deadline when shooting must begin or the project canceled keeps descending on Guido like a black cloud swallowing the sunlight of his privileged, precarious life.
8 ½ was Fellini's last film in black-and-white, beautifully lit and shot by the legendary Gianni Di Venanzo, who makes the whole film a symphony of sunlight and shadow. The movie is also graced with one of Nino Rota's finest, most supremely carnivalesque and lilting scores. "I am Guido!" Fellini once famously remarked -- and he might well have added "I am 8 1/2!" (In English and Italian, with English subtitles.) (Extras: 1969 documentary Fellini: A Director's Notebook, with Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni, directed by Fellini, in which he recounts the story of his own later abandoned film project, The Voyages of Mastorna; documentary on composer Nino Rota; commentary by Gideon Bachmann and Antonio Monda; interviews with Milo, 8 1/2 assistant Lina Wertmuller and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; introduction by Terry Gilliam; trailer; photo galleries; bBooklet with essays by Fellini critic/historians Tulio Kezich and Alexandre Sesonske.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Battle-Lines: WWII in Europe: La Bataille du Rail (The Battle of the Rails) / Somewhere in Europe (A)
France; Rene Clement, 1946, and Hungary; Geza Radvanyi, 1947, Facets, 2 discs
These two films from the late '40s, regarded in Europe as classics of the French and Hungarian cinema, are the equivalents of Italy's neo-realist masterpieces Open City, Paisa and Shoeshine.
Rene Clement's La Bataille du Rail, shot in the waning months of World War II and of the Nazi occupation of France -- very close to the events which it shows and re-creates here -- is a thrilling portrait of the French Resistance and its massive effort, together with France's loyal and heroic railway workers, to sabotage the French railroad system and make it unusable by the German army for transport of soldiers, war equipment or concentration camp victims.
Some of the footage is virtually documentary: shot for Clement's 1943 nonfiction short People of the Railways. Many of the actors are French railway workers. The action scenes have a velocity, veracity, rhythm, and rip-roaring verisimilitude that puts to shame most American "realistic" post-World War II war movies and Clement's own later, overblown epic, Is Paris Burning? (1966). Shot by Henri Alekan (the great cameraman and resistance fighter with whom Clement had worked on Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, and who later filmed Wings of Desire for Wim Wenders), written by Colette Audry and narrated by Charles Boyer, this was a mammoth French box-office hit, a winner at the first Cannes Film Festival of both the Jury Prize and the Best Director award (for Clement), and one of the first foreign-language film Oscar winners. It's a crime that it's so neglected today. (In French, with English subtitles.)
Somewhere in Europe is a Hungarian movie classic about a gang of homeless boys and children roaming the cities, roads and fields of their ravaged postwar homeland. A group of them travel through a series of increasingly violent events, and then take over an abandoned mountain chateau, along with another squatter: an old classical pianist who plays Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and teaches them how to join together and rebuild.
This is the Hungarian equivalent of William Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road and, despite a melodramatic ending, it's an even better movie -- especially its stunning first half. Director Radvanyi, who left Hungary in 1948, later directed mostly in Germany, where he made an astonishing 1965 German-language version of Uncle Tom's Cabin. (In Hungarian, with English subtitles.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Duncan Jones, 2009, Sony Pictures
Director Duncan Jones and writer Nathan Parker fly us to the moon for a claustrophobic science fiction drama about a moon-worker named Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell), who works alone, mining a moon-based energy deposit called helium-3, and is getting ready for a return home. But he has an accident and bumps into someone or something else: another Sam Bell (Rockwell again), who has a surly disposition and seems ready, if not exactly willing, to take Sam One's place. Paranoia begins to multiply, to the extent that the character here modeled on 2001's psychotic computer Hal -- Gerty, played by Kevin Spacey -- is actually the most congenial presence in the movie.
Moon isn't bad. Rockwell is good, twice, and Spacey may have another career available as a telephone answering service made to spook callers. But the film never really moves into the nightmare Phildickian fable territory that seems available to it. Moon just develops its Solaris-style unease, provides some virtuoso opportunities for Rockwell to talk to himself, and then sort of fizzles away, moonwise.
It seems a waste. There are so many great unfilmed stories available to science fiction moviemakers -- not just from Dick, but from writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Frederik Pohl, Gene Wolfe and many others -- that one wonders why that classic vein isn't tapped more often. Moon has a keen double-edged premise, but it doesn't do enough with it, or take it far enough. If you're aware of the possibilities, this movie can leave you, like Sam, talking to yourself.
In the Loop (A-)
U.K.; Armando Iannucci, 2009, MPI
Terrific satirical comedy about what passes for British diplomacy, sharply written by Iannucci and others. With James Gandolfini, and a brilliantly foul-mouthed performance as the ultimate government cynic by Peter Capaldi.
The Brothers Bloom (C+)
U.S.; Rian Johnson, 2009, Summit Entertainment
Antic and luscious-looking, this conman comedy might seem a weird follow-up to writer-director Rian Johnson's Hammetesque teen noir "Brick." But it has bounce, and it suggests that Johnson is one of those moviemakers, more common in the '60s and '70s, who isn't totally commercially driven, but wants to create or preserve a domain of artistry, youthful brio and movie allusions in a contrary world. Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody are the con artist brothers, Rachel Weisz is their partner in crime, con Ricky Jay narrates, and the supporting cast includes Maximilian Schell and Robbie Coltrane.
Brothers at War (C)
U.S.; Jake Rademacher, 2009, Summit Entertainment
Producer Gary Sinise would obviously like to put out a more celebratory view of American soldiers in Iraq than we tend to receive in current movies. I can go for that. After all, those guys out on the battlefield didn't tell us that there were weapons of mass destruction under every Iraqi rock and that mushroom clouds were looming on our horizon. They're just out there, fighting a war that should never have been called.
But frankly, I didn't get much more out of filmmaker Jake Rademacher's portrait of his two soldier brothers Isaac and Joseph, beyond nagging biblical thoughts and the sense that Jake feels he and his siblings really belong in a movie. Maybe so. But this one -- good-hearted, well-intentioned and well-shot as it may be at times -- is strictly middle of the line.
Post Grad (D+)
U.S.; Vicky Jenson , 2009, 20th Century Fox
Another genre, the yuppie success romantic comedy, that should be forcibly attacked and rehabilitated, or replaced with a revival of The Graduate. Here, the triumphant grad is Alexis Bedel as the aspiring L.A. publishing exec Ryden Malby, the nemesis is Catherine Reitman as nasty valedictorian Jessica, the wacky family includes get-rich-quick schemer Walter (Michael Keaton), good gal mom Carmela (Jane Lynch) and goofy grandma Maureen (Carol Burnett -- and a real waste of her time). There are two boyfriends -- true-blue Adam Davies (Zach Gilford) and exotic David Santiago (Rodrigo Santiago). The ending is happy. And sappy. Moratorium, please? Contrary to anyone's focus group theories, this is not the way to make an American art movie.
The Final Destination 4 (D)
U.S.; David R. Ellis, 2009, New Line
Special guest review by idiot: Wow! Cool movie! Lots of dudes and chicks get offed in all kinds of cool ways! Wow! Never saw the other "Final" movies, except Number Three. Maybe they're cool, too. There was also a cool fight in the movie house john. Dude got his head flushed in the crapper. Wow! Hey! Gotta go. Later, dude.
10 Things I Hate About You: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (C)
U.S.; Gil Junger, 1999, Touchstone
This slick teen sex comedy, inspired (but not enough) by Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, is more interesting than most of its vacuous genre, mostly because it offers a big-screen showcase for future stars Heath Ledger as Cameron and Julia Stiles as Kat -- and because screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith suggest at least that they've read Shakespeare, and even try their hands at a sonnet.
Ledger plays an Aussie-born school troublemaker who woos school rebel Kat, so some other guys (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can take Kat's sweet sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) to the prom. 10 Things is not bad, but it's not very good either, even when Ledger and Stiles strike some sparks. The obligatory teen orgy-party is one of the least convincing ever, the kids are phony and not too funny, and the last helicopter shot in this movie makes no sense. (Extras: writers and cast commentary; featurette; deleted scenes.
End of Days (C)
U.S.; Peter Hyams, 1999, Universal
You have to see a movie or two like Final Destination to know why shows like End of Days are genuinely more in the middle of the pack. Arnold Schwarzenegger defies the Devil (Gabriel Byrne, no less) by protecting Robin Tunney from the consequences of having another Rosemary's baby. Near Armageddon explodes, not too thrillingly. Hyams' luck has not improved since. (See, or rather, don't see Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.) With Kevin Pollack as Chicago -- the sidekick, not the city.
The Green Berets (D+)
U.S.; John Wayne/Ray Kellogg, 1968, Warner, Blu-ray
John Wayne fights the Vietnam War as leftie David Janssen reports it and Jim Hutton tugs hearts. The sun sets in the East here, but that's the least of this movie's problems. This ridiculous show is not within light years of Wayne's classics for directors like Ford, Hawks, Siegel and Hathaway. Or even for genial hacks like Edward Ludwig (who did Duke's HUAC movie Big Jim McLain). It stinks, though somehow it's gotten a cult reputation. Let me quote Howard Hawks on The Green Berets: "Pretty bad. I think Duke's a much better actor than director."